What Museum Tower and the Nasher Sculpture Center Can Learn From the Ancient Arabic Design of Mashrabiya

Now here’s an idea for a solution to the Museum Tower/Nasher glare crisis, and it comes right out of one of the hottest spots in the world: Abu Dhabi. Get this: solar rays in this desert town can heat the outside surface of windows up to 90 degrees Celsius — um, folks that is 200 degrees Fahrenheit. That would not just fry grass, it would zap it! But smart architects in Abu Dhabi have figured a way to shield the glass in their buildings from the sun, with a series of computerized screens that keep the buildings cool, reduce glare and still allow diffused natural light.

They are not louvres, and they are not shiny!

The inspiration came from an ancient Arabic design tradition called “mashrabiya,” or latticed screens commonly seen in Islamic architecture, that diffuse sunlight and keep buildings cool without blocking light.

Of course, that is the whole point of Museum Tower’s uniquely engineered curved glass windows, to keep interiors temperate and reduce energy. Unfortunately, the glare is allegedly making Museum Tower’s sustainability the Nasher Sculpture Center’s hot spot.

The Abu Dhabi building’s architect, Abdulmajid Karanouh, says his mission was to not allow the sun to land directly on the skin of the Al Bahar Towers, causing overheating and glare.

GLARE! That’s our problem here!

So a high-tech shading system was inspired by “mashrabiya,” but brought into the 21st century with computerization. It wraps around most of the 25-story buildings’ sides, with the screens arranged as an array of fascinating, repeating geometric patterns. They are computer-controlled to respond to the sun’s movement. They unfold like an umbrella when the sun hits them, then fold back up closed when it passes, or after the sun goes down.

The parts of the building that are not affected by sunlight glare are unshaded by the screens, or butt naked. Using this method, Karanouh says the buildings require less artificial lighting and 50% less air conditioning.

This article is interesting in what it teaches us about the complexity of sustainable glass buildings, something we have learned in Dallas with our own Museum Tower. And the lessons come out of hot-as-hell United Arab Emirates, which is not exactly a leader in combating climate change.  But, they are trying. Al Bahar Towers (which house the mashrabiya) were built with tops tilting to the sun, to eventually become solar photovaltaic panels. However, they found that desert dust and sand make the supposedly energy-saving panels actually less practical: even a thin layer of dust can reduce their efficiency by nearly half. Then another complication and challenge: proper maintenance of the panels (so you can capture the sunlight) means regular cleaning using water jets pumping fresh water, a scarcity in an arid climate, and wasteful.

It’s like rinsing out the plastic for recycling: what are we really saving?

But this also gave me another though: if dirt and dust reduce the panels efficacy, maybe the problem we have right now is that Museum Tower’s windows are just too darn clean! Let them get a little dirty and we won’t need a mashrabiya or louvres or anything!

I think this is a cool solution worth looking into, and it would kind of “marry” two energy cultures if it worked. What a great way to turn a mistake into a positive.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta was in town last week for the Tate Lecture Series at SMU, and as he spoke, light rays were beaming in my head when he said that in medicine, learning takes place through mistakes.

As a physician’s wife, I know exactly what Dr. Gupta means. Someday I want to write a book called “The Dustbusters.” No one wants those fly-in-the-ointment malpractice attorneys to hear this, but mistakes are made in hospitals DAILY and, as Dr. Gupta said, they are discussed and thrashed out in closed-door meetings. But it is through those mistakes that doctors and researchers learn how to treat and cure. It’s how medicine evolved in the first place, the reason why you cannot apply normal business guidelines to medicine. It’s an ART.

Sustainable building is also an art in its infancy. We are still in the problem-solving process when it comes to green building. We build a building that is 100% air tight so it retains heat or cold air and reduces energy costs to near zero; next thing you know, we learn the environment is making the homeowner ill because all homes need some circulation.

We build tall, reflective buildings designed to keep the interior units in a carbon neutral energy use mode, windows specially made to filter searing western sun and seal out air leaks. Turns out the glass that reduces energy consumption and reduces a few hundred carbon footprints unfortunately casts searing glare on the sculpture garden next door, destroying (they say) delicate art and landscape.

What we need to do is stop the screaming and blaming, and start the solving. Not only will we learn from our mistakes, but we might give Dallas a leadership role in sustainable architecture problem solving that might even nab us a prize.

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